THE Inverness Whisky Festival takes place on an old farm a couple of miles south of the city. Outside, a bracing view of the Moray Firth and a few folk smoking roll-ups and talking tasting notes.
Inside, 20 distilleries, 40 malts and the smells of peat and hay. The atmosphere is serious yet convivial, a blend familiar to whisky lovers the world over. And I am here to meet one in particular: Brooke Magnanti. Better known as Belle de Jour, anonymous blogger, ex-prostitute and author of the wildly successful memoirs about her intimate adventures, as the first book put it, as a London call girl. You might think a 19th-century farm in the Highlands is the last place you would expect to find the woman behind one of the biggest literary mysteries (and controversies) of the last decade. You might be surprised that this is how the story ends. Belle de Jour, lover of sex and the city, stockings and stilettos, or, as her critics put it, an irresponsible perpetrator of the happy hooker myth, taking to the hills. Maybe even hiding out in them.
Still, here she is, larger than life (smaller, actually, at just 5ft 3in) swirling a glass of Benromach and charming a steady flow of fans. Men and women, young and old, line up to get their books signed. The covers are emblazoned with Billie Piper, who played Belle in the (equally controversial) ITV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, sprawling on a bed wearing nothing but lingerie and a come-hither expression. All in all, it’s a surreal spectacle: a bunch of strangers, me included, who know every detail of this 36-year-old woman’s sex life. Their questions are polite, familiar, anodyne even. One woman asks whether she thinks Piper has been airbrushed on the cover, another how she is settling in to Fort William, where she moved with her husband after ‘coming out’ in 2009. Someone else addresses her as Belle by mistake. “The hardest part of coming out is having to keep doing it,” she tells me.
“There is a bit of apprehension when you move into a new neighbourhood and think, ‘OK, I’m going to have to have those awkward conversations all over again.’ Actually, I had nothing to fear. Some things happened that I wasn’t happy about, that were hurtful, but once you’ve gone through it once ... Well, it’s true that everything is over eventually.”
How has she been treated in Scotland? “People have been really nice to me,” she says. “I’ve landed on my feet. There are definitely places in Scotland you could go that are a bit more insular, where there would be more of a risk of people being upset just by my presence.”
No matter what her detractors think, it’s harsh knowing there are strangers out there who would be upset merely by her presence. “But if my neighbours are gossiping behind my back, they are discreet enough for me to have absolutely no idea it’s happening,” she says with a laugh. “People can think whatever they want. It’s all about how we treat each other. I do think there is a big lesson for me to learn about trusting people more than I did. For so long I was afraid of what was going to happen when I came out.”
Before the interview, we wander around the festival, talking whisky and writers (Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, Siri Hustvedt) and I get to see Magnanti in action. She has a magnetic presence and is very attentive. People are drawn to her, want to talk to her. She is wearing a low-cut dress and a cardigan, long beads round her neck and pink hoops in her ears. Her boots are flat, worth mentioning because Belle was obsessed with high heels. She often closes her eyes while she speaks and has an idiosyncratic accent, switching mid-sentence from west coast Florida, where she grew up, to West Country Bristol, where she worked as a research scientist until she moved to Scotland. It’s impossible to pin down, which is fitting for a woman who comes across as a self-creation. She looks nothing like she does in photos, that is until a camera is pointed at her. Then she half-raises her eyebrows, half-smiles and the transformation is complete. Later, after I’ve left the farm, I can’t quite remember what she looks like.
Magnanti was asked to be the festival’s ambassador when the director spotted on her website that whisky is listed as her first interest – followed by forensic biometrics and evidence-based policy, in case you’re wondering. A ’zine called Malted: A Brief History of a Love Story has also been produced, featuring Magnanti’s own botanical illustrations and a short story she wrote in 2003, the same year she started the Belle de Jour blog. It’s a mildly erotic piece about whisky and her first love, a man twice her age whom she met when she was 16. He introduced her to good food and good whisky and was known as A1 in the blog. He also introduced her to anal sex, a fact I, and millions of others, know from reading her books.
It was this story that led a fellow UK blogger, Darren, to guess her identity. He kept her secret for years and was the one who warned her in 2009 that a Daily Mail journalist was on her trail. Not long after, Magnanti took matters into her own hands and came out as the real Belle de Jour. She confessed that, for 14 months from 2003, she worked in London as a high-class escort, charging £300 an hour and seeing clients two or three times a week. The media, which had long been speculating that Belle de Jour was a fiction, a hoax, even a man, went into overdrive. Meanwhile, Darren, in a gesture of bloggers’ solidarity, sent her a bottle of whisky. So it seems that, for Magnanti, whisky and sex have long been bedfellows.
Her new book, The Sex Myth, is a different story altogether. The first written under her own name, it aims to dismantle some of the myths, as she sees them, surrounding sex. Magnanti harnesses her scientific training in an attempt to discredit existing research, and draws some compelling, contentious, sometimes odd conclusions. There are chapters on sex work and sex trafficking, pornography and the sexualisation of children, sex addiction and the internet. It’s heated stuff, certain to ruffle feathers on all sides. The moral majority, feminist campaigners, government and the media – they all get it in the neck.
Why this book now? “With my science background, I could have written a book about something incredibly nerdy, like the binding of small, drug-like molecules to proteins,” she says. “But sex seemed the natural place. I’m very interested in these topics, even though I’m not a sex worker any more.”
Is this her way of answering her detractors, perhaps even calling them out? She laughs, which is a relief. “There is a bit of soapbox there,” she concedes. “But on the other hand, it would be impossible to write about these subjects without injecting something of yourself.” In the book’s conclusion, Magnanti’s hurt over the response from feminists is palpable, and things do become a little ... “Ranty?” she interrupts. “Oh, it could have been much worse. I have a fantastic editor.
“It was more a question of trying not to take things too personally,” she goes on. “I think that’s what I’ve got out of writing this book – accepting that sometimes people make very personal comments, but they’re not commenting on you necessarily. They’re commenting on what they see you representing. But to take that personally is tempting.
“And it is a very strange thing to wake up one morning and all of the papers have an opinion about you. Not only that, they’re saying this thing about you, your life, is wrong. It’s a difficult thing to deal with, and I went through a period of being quite angry. It’s being objectified in a very different way to how we normally think of women being objectified.”
Is that really how it felt to her? “Yes,” she says, closing her eyes. “It does feel like that.”
In the book’s conclusion, she writes, “Until 2009, I would have called myself a feminist without reservation.” What about now? “It’s a very odd experience to have a lot of people, including writers I admired, saying this person can’t be a feminist. People were commenting on me as if I were a concept. There is so much infighting among feminists in this country. I kind of felt like I could either spend my time saying, ‘Listen here, this is why you should take me back in to the fold.’ Or I could just continue writing and not put my flag up any particular ideological mast.”
Interviewing Magnanti is a challenging business. She is smart, self-aware, and has an answer for everything. She is also a trouper, laughing her head off when I tell her I’m the ideal oppositional audience for her book: a feminist who thinks pornography objectifies women and sex work is an abuse of women’s bodies. She is up for the fight and would disagree with both these statements, and many more. Sex trafficking? Not as prevalent as we are led to believe. The sexualisation of children? Inflated by agenda-setters and the media.
Will she accept that prostitution, for the vast majority of those in it, is a dangerous profession in which the women are extremely vulnerable? “Yes, but I think vulnerability is a real concern in a lot of low-paid occupations,” she bats back. “For a while I moved back to Florida and worked in the kitchen of a friend’s restaurant. There were a lot of vulnerable people who were in and out of drug programmes, for instance, because it’s the sort of work you can do for short periods, for cash in hand. Being a dish-washer is sort of like the male equivalent of being a hooker.”
Erm, what? Surely a dish-washer isn’t vulnerable to the same level of abuse as a prostitute? “I guess the point I try to make in the book is that it’s not necessarily to do with the nature of the work but the messages we send surrounding sex work that’s the problem,” she says.
It’s a pretty slippery answer, but her point seems to be that sex work is a job as valid and worthy of protection as any other. This view has been lambasted by feminists for normalising prostitution, making violence invisible and transforming pimps and punters into legitimate consumers.
And so we argue on. Here she is on pornography: “A porn film is forcing a normative image on me much less than a women’s magazine. I find those far worse. I would rather watch porn any day, in terms of how I feel about my body image.”
And here she is on the sexualisation of girls: “Scottish Government research shows girls know what is appropriate in what situation. They don’t wear a Playboy bunny T-shirt and consider becoming a glamour model. Statistically young people are having sex later now than they were in the 1990s.”
Magnanti refuses to portray herself as a victim. She loves sex, enjoyed sex work, it was a means to an end when she was struggling to pay the rent, and she makes no apologies for it. Her attitude is part of what makes her appealing. Belle de Jour as the witty, libertarian courtesan outfoxing men in her stockings is an archetype that has existed for centuries. But it’s also why Magnanti has been dismissed as someone who glamorises prostitution, promotes the Pretty Woman myth and sells male fantasy. “Glamorisation – I wish that word would die a death,” she says, making a face. “I think it’s a huge oversimplification of what the books were about. “When I was living that life there were aspects of it that were glamorous on the face of it – the dressing up, the going to hotels – but deep down it’s just a story of someone in a city trying to get by.
“The other word I’ve had enough of is empowerment. People think if you do anything and talk about it, then it’s an empowerment story. Sometimes a story is just a story.”
Actually, there is a strong sense of alienation running through the books. It must have been an isolating time, keeping what she was doing from everyone. Was she lonely? “I was at times,” she says warily. “The irony is that my personal relationships were a lot less satisfying than being a sex worker. It was very strange to be making these connections with other lonely people in the city and thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve got something more in common with this businessman who is paying for sex than with some people I actually know.’”
I tell Magnanti that I found myself wondering whether she left out some of the more sad, troubled and difficult parts of her experiences, whether in writing them down she transformed them for herself? She is completely resistant to this interpretation. “I tried as much as possible for that not to happen,” she insists.
“You don’t want to sex it up. You want to try as much as possible to be authentic. The difficult, sad, lonely bits were very little to do with the work and very much to do with my personal relationships. [Sex] work was a kind of escape from that.”
Prostitution, she maintains, only suits some people. She dissuades most of the women who get in touch asking whether she would recommend it (which is pretty strong evidence of her influence on how prostitution is viewed). The reason it worked for her, she says, is because she has the rare ability to compartmentalise her emotions. But at what cost? Later I ask her this in an e-mail and she writes back: “It’s hard to say. In part I think it’s down to being and thinking like a scientist. But I have no idea whether that was learned as a result of my academic interests or ... because I was already good at detaching. In terms of a cost, some people read my writing and think I am heartless or cold. Hopefully friends don’t see me that way.”
Magnanti grew up in Florida, an only child. She was precociously smart, a science geek who went to university at the age of 16. “I was an intense little kid,” she says. “The image that stands out for me is a spelling bee I did rather well in when I was 11 years old. My mother has a video tape of it and I’m just this tiny little elf child with my hair in plaits, bifocals, wearing my school uniform on a Saturday. Such a nerd.”
Her mother was a cardiology technician and her father, who had a science background, owned a plumbing business. They divorced not long after she left home. After Magnanti came out in 2009, a tabloid interview ran in which her father confessed he had slept with 150 prostitutes after his marriage broke down and introduced some of the women to his daughter. “My dad changed a lot after my parents’ divorce,” she says.
“He was definitely someone who thrived more being married. Some people just can’t cope after that. It has probably been a very hard road for him ...” She pauses. “I don’t judge.”
Magnanti broke contact with him in 2005 because of his drug addiction. “We haven’t been in contact since,” she says. “So all the stuff that happened with the papers ... I hadn’t spoken to him for years before that. We did try to get in contact, my mother and I, but the papers found him before we did. I’m sure it was a surprise and that’s something, unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything about.”
She adds that the speculation around the connection between her father’s use of prostitutes and her decision to enter sex work is “rubbish” and “just more over-simplification”.
Nevertheless, they were close when she was growing up and the sudden change in her father must have been tough. “Yes,” she says. “It just goes to show that anything can change. It’s a very useful lesson. Anybody can change, for better or worse, at any point. It’s strangely hopeful. If you wake up one morning and think, ‘I’ve done everything wrong in my life,’ you can change.”
So if she could do it all again, what would she do differently? Magnanti laughs at the very thought. “Nothing,” she says in that untraceable accent. She closes her eyes and smiles. “It has all brought me here, hasn’t it?” n
The Sex Myth, by Brooke Magnanti, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99, or £7.99 as an eBook